“The Cathedral” – Radiolab

[This post was originally posted on Andrews.Reviews]

This episode of Radiolab was originally a Reply All podcast, but it was so good that Jad and Robert decided they also wanted to feature it on Radiolab. Even though that seems like it’s kind of cheating, I can totally understand why.

I listen to most podcasts while doing chores around the house, and most often while I wash the dishes. Yesterday I listened to this episode and didn’t have huge expectations or anything. I haven’t been wowed or extremely moved by a Radiolab episode in quite a while. (Perhaps the last memorable one was also a hijacked episode from Love + Radio). But as this story started to unfold more and more, I was really getting quite emotional. Eventually I had to stop washing the dishes and just sit down and listen to the story. Maybe it touched that deep seated fear that I carry around with me knowing about the fragility of life and that overall the health of my kids is almost completely out of my hands. It’s a scary thing. I’ve always been one of those parents that if my kid takes just a little longer than usual nap assumes that he’s stopped breathing. That if I don’t hear a peep from one of my boys, that they have figured out a way of electrocuting themselves or something. It felt like this podcast brushed up against that sensitive nerve and kind of left me a bit out of breath.

Another part of the episode that was really significant with me was how the parents’ expectations came for the most part not from their doctors, but from their faith. And a major portion of the episode allowed us to peek in on what that faith looked like for them. The frustrating balance of not knowing what is going to happen, yet having faith in an all-powerful and good God. And especially faith in the power of prayer. They were worshipping and believing in a God who at any moment could completely heal little Joel, but may not. But that just begs the question, “why not?” Why answer a prayer to hush the crying baby and yet not heal him? That’s got to be so frustrating.

The whole scenario that lead to the birth of the idea for the video game was totally fascinating to me. Building a game where what you do doesn’t necessarily have any affect on the outcome. Everything is out of your hands. And he wanted to recreate that feeling in a video game. Could he program that? I think that even though he is a software developer, that he even thought of that also tells something about his faith.

The success of the idea of the game was surprising I think overall. He got investors. He had a lot of interest. And so they pushed forward and leaned in to make and complete this game. All the time Joel was looking to be getting better. Until he didn’t.

And then they had to figure out how to finish the story. But how do you finish a story like that? After trying to build an incredibly beautiful cathedral to capture all the complexities of the end of Joel’s life and eventually his death, they realized they just couldn’t capture the whole idea within a video game. And he eventually tried a different idea. An ending where you see Joel on his little heaven island. He’s happy. And enjoying all the things a little kid can enjoy. And you as the player, the dad, have to decide to walk away sometime – or else the game never ends. Wow.

I’ve always assumed that video games have the greatest potential for the most powerful form of storytelling. It’s not a movie. It’s not a TV show. You are involved in the story. You are actually a part of it. The decisions you make have consequences. If you commit an act of violence, you are not merely watching it on a screen, you choose to commit an act of violence. Some video games’ complete premise are built upon those choices.

But I shy away from those games. And I often bemoan not knowing of any video games that really push into the possibilities of telling a powerful story through video games.

So this morning, after coincidentally having a pancake breakfast (something that little Joel  loved) and that the website for the video game encouraged people to do today, I got onto steam and bought the video game for $15. Even though I already know so much about the story and how it ends, I still think it is going to be quite the immersive experience.

Anyway, shout out to the people at Reply All for doing this story, and kudos to Radiolab to making it known more widely known.

Grade: A

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